Opinion
Student Well-Being Opinion

The Silent Majority

By Ronald A. Wolk — April 15, 2005 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

It’s ironic that the only people who have been excluded from the school reform debate are those most affected by it: the students. Except for occasional tokenism and the efforts of a few enlightened educators and reformers, their voices have been remarkably absent from the national discussion about the objectives of schooling and how we should achieve them.

That’s worth thinking about. Do we not believe that the people closest to the action have anything useful to say? (If that’s the case, we’re at least partly responsible.) Or are we afraid to ask them because we won’t like their answers?

The reform rhetoric of the past 25 years has been about making sure that children acquire the knowledge and skills they need to become productive, responsible citizens and to help sustain America’s economic welfare and democratic institutions. Common sense suggests that we’re more likely to accomplish these goals if schools model democratic principles in the way they conduct their business and give students the opportunity to participate in decisionmaking. If we want kids to become productive citizens, we should expose them to real-world issues, both in classrooms and in their communities. And if we want them to become responsible adults, we should expect them to take more responsibility for their education.

If we want kids to become responsible adults, we should expect them to take more responsibility for their education.

We tell students that they are the future, the leaders of tomorrow. But we do a poor job of preparing them for that role and behave as if we don’t have much confidence in them. Public schools are more about control and conformity than they are about unleashing the enormous untapped potential of their 50 million students.

There are some notable exceptions, and they offer a compelling lesson for teachers and administrators. One of them is Kennebunk High School in Maine. Students there have a pronounced voice, mainly because principal Nelson Beaudoin passionately believes they’ll use it constructively and creatively. “I would rather have a school of volunteers than a school of prisoners,” he said during a recent presentation. He later added: “We cannot expect students to accept responsibility unless we provide them with choices.”

Students participate in virtually every decision at Kennebunk High. They provide feedback to teachers on their courses and instruction. Instead of parent-teacher conferences, there are student-led conferences during which teenagers discuss their progress with parents and tell them who they are, where they’re going, and what they need to get there.

Kennebunk abandoned its elected student council (which was mainly a popularity contest) in favor of open membership. Any student can attend, and 40 to 50 show up at meetings instead of the handful of elected members who used to. The council is based on the legislative model: Students offer proposals, which are debated and ultimately voted on. And the decisions are not limited to such trivia as choosing a theme for the prom—the kids have a say in school rules and operating procedures.

Twice a month, council representatives meet for breakfast with Beaudoin to discuss school improvements. They have a representative on the school board who reports monthly to board members on behalf of the students. The school’s staff-leadership team consults regularly with students on important matters.

Kennebunk also has a significant service-learning program that’s linked to the curriculum and allows the teenagers to address real community issues. In his book, Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone, Beaudoin notes that one of the biggest benefits of service learning for students is the “validation of their self-worth.”

Stepping Outside is full of inspiring stories about students who “deliver thoughtfully” when given responsibility. But empowering youth “is not a simple proposition,” Beaudoin writes. “The idea carries with it all sorts of anxiety and fear. ... It requires a tremendous amount of trust from adults, a tremendous amount of responsibility from students, and a framework that provides opportunities for student leadership.”

Sounds to me like the essence of good education.

A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 2005 edition of Teacher as The Silent Majority

Events

School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Get a Strong Start to the New School Year
Get insights and actions from Education Week journalists and expert guests on how to start the new school year on strong footing.
Reading & Literacy Webinar A Roadmap to Multisensory Early Literacy Instruction: Accelerate Growth for All Students 
How can you develop key literacy skills with a diverse range of learners? Explore best practices and tips to meet the needs of all students. 
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
College & Workforce Readiness Webinar
Supporting 21st Century Skills with a Whole-Child Focus
What skills do students need to succeed in the 21st century? Explore the latest strategies to best prepare students for college, career, and life.
Content provided by Panorama Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being CDC's Latest COVID Guidance for Schools Ends 'Test-to-Stay,' Quarantine Recommendations
Guidance from the CDC on COVID-19 de-emphasizes some school strategies, like social distancing and screening testing.
4 min read
Image of a cotton swab test.
iStock/Getty
Student Well-Being Should Medical Marijuana Be Allowed in Schools?
Many states are leaving it up to schools and districts to decide if students can take cannabis as medication.
7 min read
An employee at a medical marijuana dispensary in Egg Harbor Township, N.J., sorts buds into prescription bottles on March 22, 2019.
An employee at a medical marijuana dispensary in Egg Harbor Township, N.J., sorts buds into prescription bottles in 2019.
Julio Cortez/AP
Student Well-Being Opinion How Trauma-Informed Practice Made Me a Better Teacher
Students aren’t the only ones who need help managing their emotional responses. Here’s where to start.
Melody Hawkins
4 min read
Conceptual illustration of learning through trauma
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Student Well-Being What the Feds' Latest Move on Monkeypox Vaccines Means for Young People
Adults can get a reduced dose of vaccine, but younger people would still receive the traditional shot under an emergency use authorization.
1 min read
Image of a band aid being applied after a vaccination.
iStock/Getty